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Courtesy and Japan
By JULIAN STREET
There is no dissimulation. stranger is as welcome in New York as he feels. If there is a hotel room, a theater seat, or a restaurant table disengaged, he may have it at a price. If all are occupied, he may, as far as New York cares, step outside and, with due regard to the season and the traffic regulations, die of sunstroke or perish in a snow-drift; whereupon his case comes automatically under the supervision of the Street Cleaning Department, and whatever else that department may leave lying about the New York streets, it does not leave them littered with defunct strangers. Space in our city is too valuable.
The visitor arriving in New York with a letter of introduction to some gentleman who is important, or who believes he is, may expect a few minutes' talk with the gentleman in the latter's office, and may regard it as a delicate attention if his host refrains from fidgeting. Should the stranger have some information that the NewYorker desires to possess, he may be invited to lunch at a club in the top of a downtown sky-scraper; or if the
letter of introduction has a social flavor, the outlander will presently receive by mail, at his hotel, a guest's card to a club uptown.
Let him make bold to visit this club, and he will find there no one to speak to save a rigid door-man and some waiters. The door-man will tell him coldly where to check his hat and coat. He will see a few members in the club, but will not know them, nor will they desire to know him. All New-Yorkers know more people than they want to, anyway. The stranger with a guest's card to a New York club is as comfortable there as a cat in a cathedral.
In the West it is different. And, again, it is different in Japan. Those who go well introduced to Japan meet there an experience such as is hardly to be encountered in any other land. Japanese courtesy and hospitality are fairly stupefying to the average AngloSaxon. The Occidental mind is staggered by the mere externals.
You see two Japanese meet-two gentlemen, two ladies, or a lady and a gentlemen. They face each other at fairly close range. Then, as though at some signal unperceived by the foreigner, they bow deeply from the waist, their heads passing with so small a space between that the beholder fears a collision. Three times in succession they bow in this way, simultaneously, their palms sliding up and down the leg, from hip to knee,
like piston-rods attached to the walking-beam of a side-wheeler.
In conjunction with this profound and protracted bowing, especially when the bowers are Japanese of the old school or are unaccustomed to associate with foreigners, the bystander will oftentimes hear a sibilant sound, made by the drawing in of air through the lips. According to the Japanese idea, such sounds denote appreciation, as of some delicious spiritual flavor. This ancient form of politeness is, however, being discarded by sophisticated young Japan for the reason that foreigners find it peculiar; and the practice of audibly sucking in food as an expression of gustatory ecstasy is also going out of fashion for the same reason. The old ways are, nevertheless, held to by many an aristocrat of middle age or older.
The American, accustomed to regard hissing as a sign of disapproval, and noisy eating as ill bred, is naturally startled on first encountering these manifestations. Japanese bowing, when directed at him, he finds disconcerting. He may wish to be as polite as the politest, but he has in his repertory nothing adequate to offer in return for such obeisance.
In this country we have never taken to bowing as practised in some other lands. Our men look askance at Latin males when they lift their hats to one another in salutation, and it may be observed that some of us tend to slight the lifting of the hat a little bit even when saluting ladies, clutching furtively at the brim and perhaps loosening the hat upon the head, then hastily jamming it back into place.
The truth is that few American men have polished manners. We rebel We rebel at anything resembling courtliness.
In these matters, then, as in many others, we find ourselves at the opposite pole from the Japanese; and though Americans of the class willing to appreciate merits other than those characteristic of the United States feel nothing but admiration for Japanese courtesy in its perfection, it sometimes happens, lamentably, that others, less intelligent, going to the Orient, utterly misread the meaning of Japanese politeness, mistaking it for servility, which it most emphatically is not. Far from being servile, it is a proud politeness-a politeness grounded upon custom, sensitiveness of nature, delicacy of feeling, which causes the possessor to expect in others a like sensitiveness and delicacy, and to make him wish to outdo them in tact and consideration.
Nor does the failure of certain of our people to appreciate Japanese courtesy stop here. Our yellow press and organized Japanese-haters, aware that the higher hospitality of Japan has oftentimes an official or semi-official character, are not satisfied to seek a simple explanation for the fact, but prefer to discern in it something artful and sinister.
It is perfectly true that the stranger going to Japan well introduced meets a group composed chiefly of government officials, big business men, and their families. It is also true that he is likely to meet a selected group of such
entertaining foreigners. This class is, moreover, still further limited by the financial burden of extensive entertaining.
Thus it happens that there exists in Japan a social group which may be likened to a loosely organized entertainment committee, with the result that most Americans who are entertained in that country meet, broadly speaking, the same set of people.
The Japanese are entirely frank in their desire to interest the world in Japan. The Government maintains a bureau for the purpose of encouraging tourists to visit the country and making travel easy for them; journalists, authors, men of affairs, and others likely to have influence at home are especially encouraged to come. The feeling of the Japanese is that there exists in the United States a prejudice against them, and that the best way to overcome this is to show Japan to Americans and let them form their own conclusions. They are proud of their country, and they believe that those who become acquainted with it will think well of it.
Some Americans charge them with endeavoring to show things at their best, as though to do that were a sly sin. The attitude of the Japanese in this matter may be likened to that of a man who owns a home in some not very accessible region, the advantages of which are doubted by his friends. Being proud of his place, the owner is hospitable. He urges those he knows to come to see it. When his guests arrive, he does not begin by taking them to look at the sick cow or the corner behind the barn where refuse is dumped, but marches them to the west veranda-the veranda with the wonderful view.
To the average person such a procedure would seem entirely normal. Yet there are critics of Japan who do not see it in that light. Their point of view might be likened to that of some one who, when taken to the veranda to see the view, declares that the view is shown not on its own merits, but because the host has cut the butler's throat and does not wish his guests to notice the body lying under the parlor table.
Let an American of any influence go to Japan, be cordially received there, form his impressions, and return with a good word to say for the islands and the people, and the professional Japanese-haters have their answer ready. The man has been victimized by "propaganda." He has been flattered by social attentions, fuddled with food and drink, reduced to a state of idiocy, and in that state "personally conducted" through Japan in a manner so crafty as to prevent his stumbling upon "the truth."
The precise nature of this "truth" is never revealed. It is merely indicated as some vague awfulness behind a curtain carefully kept drawn.
Having so often heard these rumors, I went to Japan in a suspicious frame of mind. Arriving there, I made it my business to dive behind whatever looked like a curtain of mystery. I found a number of mysteries-the fascinating mysteries of an old and peculiar civilization, out of which an interesting modernism had rapidly grown.
I was considerably entertained in Japan, my sight-seeing was oftentimes facilitated by Japanese friends; but the significant fact is that no one ever tried to prevent my seeing anything I wished to see. And I wished to see
everything, good and bad. I visited the lowest slums, a penitentiary, a poorhouse, a hospital, and some factories. I asked questions. Sometimes they were embarrassing questionsabout militarism in Japan, about Shantung, about Korea and Formosa, about Manchuria and Siberia. And though I do not expect any Japanese-hater to believe me, I wish to declare here, in justice to the Japanese, that they gave me the information I asked, even though it sometimes pained them to do so.
I saw and learned things creditable to Japan and things discreditable, just as in other lands one sees and learns things in both categories. I found the Japanese neither angels nor devils, but human beings, like the rest of us, having their virtues and their defects.
I came away liking them. This fact I proclaim with the full knowledge that those who do not like them will accept it not as a sign of any merit in the Japanese, but as proof of my incompetence or worse.
"But you have not been to China," some of my friends say. "You would "You would like the Chinese better than the Japanese."
That may be true or it may not. am inclined to believe that there is more natural sympathy between Americans and Chinamen than between Americans and Japanese. The Chinaman is more easily comprehensible to us. Also, he is meek. We can talk down to him. He will do as we tell him to do. He is not a contender, as the Japanese very definitely is, and it is therefore easier to get along with him. As an individual man he has many qualities to recommend him, though neither patriotism nor cleanliness seems generally to be among them.
If I ever go to China, I shall hope and expect not to fall into the mental grooves which lead many travelers in the Orient to feel that if they like a Chinaman, they cannot like a Japanese, and vice versa. I hereby reserve the right to like both.
China appears to be an amiable, flaccid, sleepy giant who has long allowed himself to be bullied, victimized, and robbed. Japan, on the other hand, may be personified as a small, well-knit, pugnacious person, well able to look after himself, and profoundly engaged in doing so.
Naturally, the two do not get on well together, and, equally naturally, the impotent giant comes off the worse. If to that extent one is sorry for him, one can hardly respect him as one would were he to rise up and assert himself. But though one may wish the little Japanese less obstreperous, one is bound to respect him for his prowess. Physically and materially, he has earned for himself the undisputed leadership of the Far East.
There remains the question whether he is spiritually great enough to become a moral leader as well. In that question is bound up the future of the Orient. Some signs are hopeful, some are not.
Naturally, the Japanese are proud of the leadership they have already attained. Being relatively new members of that hair-pulling, hobnailed family we call the family of nations, and having rapidly become important members, they are inclined to harp more than necessary upon this importance, so novel and so gratifying to them. They like to talk about it. They delight in proclaiming themselves a "first-class power." They rejoice exceedingly in their alliance
with Great Britain not because the alliance itself has any very real importance (in view of the attitude of Australia and Canada toward Japan, and of Great Britain's consideration for the United States, it cannot have), but because of the flattering association. Japan likes to be seen walking with the big fellows.
Now, there is this to be remembered about a youth in his first long trousers: he requires careful handling. If you treat him like a child, either patronizing or ignoring him, you will offend him mortally, and not impossibly drive him to some furious action in assertion of his manhood. But if, on the other hand, you are misled by his appearance of maturity, and expect of him all that you would expect of a thoroughly ripened man, then you are likely to find yourself at times cruelly disappointed.
There is only one course to be pursued with a youth in this intermediate stage. He must be managed with tact, firmness, and patience. In dealing with the young, many adults fail to understand this, and in dealing with a nation in a corresponding state of evolution, other nations are as a rule even stupider than adult persons.
Great Britain, wisest of all the world in international affairs, has not made this mistake in her relations with Japan. The alliance is one proof of it. The visit paid by the Crown Prince of Japan to England not long since is another. Nor was the tact of Great Britain in this situation ever better displayed than in King George's speech, when, toasting the imperial guest, he said:
"Because he is our friend, we are not afraid for him to see our troubles. We
know his sympathy is with us, and he will understand."
Would that the United States might draw the simple lesson from these two short sentences spoken by England's king! Would that we might learn to take that amiable tone! Would that Americans might understand how instantly the Japanese respond to such approaches!
With Mr. Hughes in the State Department one becomes hopeful that American-Japanese relations will improve, but Mr. Hughes has not yet had time to accomplish much in this direction. If he does, he will be the first American statesman to do so. Since Roosevelt was in the White House and Elihu Root in the State Department there has not been evident in our dealings with Japan a definite and understanding policy. The failure of our diplomacy is all too plainly reflected in the steady diminution of the good feeling which then existed.
Though he never visited Japan, Roosevelt, with his amazing understanding of people, managed to sense the Japanese perfectly. He knew their virtues and their failings. He realized precisely the state they had attained in their evolution from medievalism to modernity.
"Speak softly and carry a big stick," he used to say. In those words are summed up a large part of his Japanese policy. He knew when to send a bearskin to the emperor and when to send a fleet.
Even when he sent that fleet of sixteen battle-ships, the visit paid was one of courtesy. And courtesy, as I have tried to show, is never, never lost upon Japan.